Elevators can be awkward places where people tend to avoid eye contact and conversation. People choose where to stand in an elevator based on certain unwritten rules of status and etiquette.
When alone in an elevator, a person can stand anywhere. If there are two people, they tend to stand in opposite corners. If a third person enters the elevator, they form a triangle. With four people, passengers form a square. If a fifth person boards the elevator, that person stands in the middle of the square. If more people enter, they have to find an available place and tend to look down.
Rebekah Rousi, a PhD candidate in cognitive science, studied people’s behavior in elevators in two of the tallest buildings in Adelaide, Australia. She rode the elevators 30 times and found that people tended to stand in specific places based on their gender and age.
Senior men tended to stand at the back of the elevator. Younger men stood in front of them, and women of all ages stood closest to the doors.
Rousi also found differences in where people looked while riding elevators. Men watched monitors and looked in mirrors to see themselves and their fellow passengers. Women looked at monitors and avoided making eye contact. They only looked in the mirrors when they were with other women.
Rousi was unsure how to interpret her findings. She thought that perhaps shy people tended to stand in the front and bolder people stood in the back to look at others.
Professor Babette Renneberg of the Free University of Berlin believes people behave awkwardly in elevators because they do not have the same amount of personal space they are used to having in other situations. She said they want to act in a way that is not threatening or ambiguous and therefore stand as far apart as possible and avoid eye contact.